Pot Is More Mainstream Than Ever, So Why Is Legalization Still Taboo?
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In New York, where Mayor Michael "You Bet I Did -- And I Enjoyed It" Bloomberg has continued Rudolph Giuliani's war on pot smokers, a police department spokesperson tried to convince reporters that there was no such crackdown, because the number of summonses issued for marijuana possession declined over the last decade. (Having less than 25 grams carries only a $100 fine under state law, but possession in public is a misdemeanor. New York City police have been arresting more than 40,000 people a year on that charge, mostly young black and Latino men.)
Liberal politicians who believe that the laws are too harsh but don't want to take the risk of siding with stoners often support decriminalization as a middle ground. Decriminalization has definitely been an improvement -- as Gottfried points out, it's made the difference between spending a night in jail and a year in prison for having a small bag of pot -- but it is actually a harsher regime than alcohol Prohibition was. Under Prohibition, home winemaking and medical use of alcohol were legal, and people could keep liquor acquired before the law went into effect in 1920. (The New York governor's mansion had one such stash of booze, and the Yale Club in Manhattan stockpiled a 14-year supply.)
Obama's Oct. 19 guidelines that federal prosecutors not pursue medical-marijuana cases in states where it's legal are encouraging. On the other hand, like so much in Obama's tenure, they might also be far more symbolic than real. They contain enough wiggle room to permit federal aid to local prosecutors who go after medical marijuana, such as Steve Cooley in Los Angeles.
In general, Obama's positions have evolved in a typically hypocritical manner. He endorsed decriminalization when he was an Illinois state legislator campaigning on a college campus, but he now states flatly that he does not support legalization -- although he wrote in his autobiography that while pot didn't solve your problems, "it could at least help you laugh at the world's ongoing folly and see through all the bullshit and cheap moralism." (There are photos of Obama as a straw-hatted college student, smoking an ambiguous cigarette with his thumb and forefinger and looking blissfully slit-eyed.)
"Legalization is not in the president's vocabulary, and it is not in mine," federal drug czar Gil Kerlikowske has reiterated, although he is relatively liberal on other drug issues.
According to St. Pierre, the staff of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., specifically warned the pot-legalization movement not to pressure the Obama administration or congressional Democrats because they were preoccupied with the economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and health care. The message, he says, was "We are not going to advance this issue, and you need to cut us some slack."
Change You Can Put in Your Pipe
What can be done? What would change the political climate to enable a reasonable discussion of legalizing and regulating marijuana?
Deborah Small says it would take a society that cared about black and Latino youth instead of criminalizing them in the name of "quality of life" policing.
Politicians talk about keeping young people in school and getting them jobs, but then they support "policing tactics guaranteed to bring them into the criminal-justice system for relatively minor offenses." If Obama had been busted for pot when he was a young man, she asks, would he be president today? "Certainly not."
She finds it remarkable that the hip-hop generation that emerged after the crack epidemic of the late '80s eschewed hard drugs in favor of marijuana -- and the system responded by arresting them more, with policies that rewarded large numbers of petty-possession busts.